Cox’s Bazar is the pride and joy of Bangladeshis. Everywhere I went people would always say to visit their famous beach. I had already planned my Bangladesh trip to end at Cox’s Bazar, and after being in the big cities I was looking forward to filling my lungs with sea air for a few days.
Even before I knew anything about Cox’s Bazar I was intrigued to visit. It seemed, bizarre that a place in Bangladesh would still have a colonial-era name, of a person no less.
Cox’s Bazar is the name of the city, the surrounding district, and the name of what is the longest unbroken length of beach in the world. I’ve read it’s between 120 to 155km. Whatever its length, it’s a big-ass beach.
At the top end of the beach is the city of Cox’s Bazar, which is where the airport and most of the hotels are. The first thing I did after I had checked in was to get a glimpse of this legendary beach. It’s a wide and sandy beach in front of the hotel area. The water colour is more of a “Bay of Bengal Brown”, as I liked to call it.
When I was booking a hotel I was having a hard time finding any decent rooms. It turns out I was there during a national holiday, so the beach was even more crowded than usual. At times the beach resembled a waddle of penguins. I imagined that if an alien spaceship came to earth they might come here to study our species, just as we head to Antarctica to study Emperor Penguins.
It seemed like half of Bangladesh was here, and like my experience in Chittagong I was swamped with selfie requests.
When I go to the beach I usually spend my time walking along the waters edge, which is what most people were doing here. It seems like I have found my beach people.
The good thing about Cox’s Bazar is that most of the development is centred on one area. You only have to walk a kilometre and the crowd thins out fast. By then you end up in beach cricket territory.
And beyond there it thins out to the point where you have the beach to yourself. I had considered renting a bike and going out to explore more of the coastline, but I was perfectly content with just walking a few kilometres away from the hotel zone. Part of me wanted to see every kilometre of this beach, as if to confirm that it is indeed the longest beach in the world. Then I realised that as long as I get a bit of solitude on this stretch of beach I don’t need to see it all.
Most of the activity beyond the hotels are fishermen. Look out for these charming little fishing boats.
Cox’s Bazar is near the Myanmar border, though crossing has been closed for foreigners for years. One thing that was disturbing about being here was knowing that not far from here are refugee camps, where life is not a day at the beach. Over half a million Rohingya refugees have poured in from neighbouring Myanmar into Cox’s Bazar District.
As with Dhaka and Chittagong, there are very few signs of the globalised world in Cox’s Bazar. On the main beach road a KFC stands alone as the only internationally recognisable brand.
Why eat at KFC though when you can get a curry with a freshly-made paratha bread.
At this point of my trip I was hoping to find some more cafes. I found one cafe that served espresso coffee and was suitable to do some work in.
Another good cafe is Mermaid cafe, which is a popular expat cafe by the beach. I saw more foreigners at these two cafes than in all of a week of travel in Bangladesh. My guess that most of the foreigners were working here, perhaps involved in the nearby refugee camps. I also saw the same three British guys walking along the beach at sunset every night.
Apart from the foreigners in their NGO 4WD’s there are very few international visitors here. The only flights here are from Dhaka and Chittagong and there is no indication of an international tourist market. While wandering around I soon realised there were no international currency exchanges. Usually beach resorts are awash with currency exchanges. With 163 million in the country, the domestic market is certainly large enough to sustain a tourism industry here.
There appears to have been a building boom several years ago which then came to a halt.
The most prominent building is the Radisson Blu project which is currently a concrete shell.
There is concern about over development, which the abandoned constructions sites stand as a monument to. On the other hand I would actually prefer it if they just developed the crap out of the city, and then left the rest of the beach as is. This would be better than having the 100+ kilometres of beach being over developed.
Before they go ahead and build more hotels, more work needs to be done on the basics. Rubbish is a big problem here, with people dumping rubbish in empty lots.
The back streets also have an abundance of rubbish.
And the back roads that serve hotels also need to be sealed.
One thing that surprised me was that electric tuk tuks are used here.
Given that Bangladesh is a conservative muslim country it’s always going to struggle to attract international visitors looking for a fun beach holiday.
That doesn’t mean though that it couldn’t become an international destination. If the roads and rubbished were fixed up, they could turn the city into a pleasant place to live. A good idea would be to have a long beach promenade, something like The Rambla in Montevideo. This walkway is 22km long and is an attraction in its own right. Cox’s Bazar is promoted as being the longest beach in the world, so why not offer an accessible (and environmentally friendly) way to experience it by having a broad walking and cycling path.
A train is planned from Chittagong to Cox’s Bazar, and before the Rohingya crisis there had been talk of a Bangladesh-Myanmar connection. My dream is to one day be able to get the train from Bangkok to India, so who knows, maybe I will be back here again in my lifetime via a train.